"Who's watching that kid in the red shirt? Where are his parents?"
I can vividly remember the day I ran into Red Shirt Kid. It was one of those wonderful summer days where we packed up the young family and headed to Calaway Park. As kids are apt to do once you've gone and paid a lofty price to enter the park, they headed right for the free, non-mechanical, nothing special, Freddie the Fireboat playground area. I wasn't too worried about it at the time though because the sun was shining, I already had my popcorn, and the rest of the day was bound to be great. The playground was a bit different in that it was a kids-only play area. No parents were allowed, or could even get inside the structure. My wife and I bid our then 8-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter farewell and took our seats on the observational rock seating waiting for them to come out.
My son was gone, but my daughter would make her way into our audio-visual range to wave and get our attention with a "Mommy, did you see me..." or "Daddy, watch me...". We smiled and continued our adult conversation. Everyone was happy. That was, until Red Shirt Kid showed up.
Red Shirt Kid made his first appearance as he bumped my daughter as she was waving to us. He was big - larger than most kids at the playground, but what made him stand out even more so was his pace. That kid was moving! And there was no obligatory "excuse me" as he cut his path. This kid was on a mission. Captain's steering wheel? Look out kid, I'm the captain now. Cargo net climb? Move it kid or I'm going over top of you. Red shirt kid was taking no prisoners, and he had some of us parents making eye contact with each other and proverbially rolling our eyes. Then, Red Shirt Kid made his big mistake. He knocked my baby girl to the ground and made her cry.
I sprang to my daughter's side. A hug, a couple kisses and a reminder of the ice cream I had promised seemed to do the trick. After a minute or two she was clambering to get back into the playground to be with her brother and new-found friends. I, on the other hand, was going to make sure Red Shirt Kid got a message from me.
Now, as a teacher, I was pretty sure my interaction was going to be pretty grounded, soft and casual, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't running a bit hot. As I made my way toward the entrance of the playground I scripted out my words to Red Shirt Kid carefully. I scanned the crowd wondering if I could spot his parents. Then I waited for him to zoom by the entrance so I could grab a quick word. As expected, I could hear him before I could see him. I knew he was coming. I calmed myself and prepared to launch in, but I never did say anything. Before I could open my mouth, I quickly read the words on the front of that red shirt. They read "Be Patient With Me, I Have Autism".
I can't really explain fully what the next hour or so was like, but I think you can see that by talking about this all those years later that it had a very profound impact on me.. I can say directly in moment that my mood switched from irritation to compassion. I talked to my wife (also a teacher) about how awesome that shirt was and how proactive his parents had been for putting it on that day. While she's always interested to talk about these types of things with me, I am sure that the next hour was probably exhausting for her because I don't remember stopping my running commentary on it. Some of the things I thought about then and since included:
I didn't notice Red Shirt Kid doing anything too offside on the playground after that moment. I wonder now if it's because he slowed down a bit, or because my own way of thinking changed. I didn't say anything to him, and I didn't make out his parents either. What I did end up leaving the park with that day was a tired, happy family, and an awareness that every kid we meet has something special and unique about them and it's our job as professionals to find out what it is. Believe me, they don't all wear helpful t-shirts.